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Southwestern France

Monday January 4th, 1999 to Saturday January 16th, 1999

It was grey and raining on and off when I arrived in Chartres in the late morning. Although the town is nice, people really only visit Chartres for 1 reason. Built in the early 13th century, the Cathèdral Notre Dame has changed little since then (many of Europe's cathedrals were extensively rebuilt following various revolutions, wars, fires, etc.). Among its most famous attributes are the 2 towers, one early Gothic and the other the tallest extant example of Romanesque architecture. The stained glass widows, which date from as early as 1150, are said to be among the finest in the world, and the labyrinth that covers the floor (in dark and light stones) is very cool. The dozens (perhaps hundreds) of figures that surround the cathedral (carved into the outer walls), ranging from saints to gargoyles, are also fascinating. I took a tour of the cathedral with Malcolm Miller, an internationally renowned English scholar who has studied the iconography in great depth. I also spent a few hours wandering around the cathedral on my own, then had a quick look around the town before retiring to the hostel.

The following day I set out for Tours, where I eventually arrived at the hostel via a somewhat circuitous route. I spent a total of 3 nights in Tours; I had a quick look around the town in the evening of the day I arrived, then made a more thorough visit the following day. The city contains many impressive old buildings, including some half-timbered houses and the Cathèdral St. Martin, which features some fairly beautiful stained glass and an attached medieval cloister. I was quickly realising that the best way to see Europe's smaller cities and towns is not to set out with a destination in mind, but rather to wander semi-aimlessly through the medieval streets among the centuries old buildings.

My final day in Tours was in fact not spent in Tours at all. The Loire Valley region of France, where Tours is located, is famous for its châteaux; although most of them are not easily reached on foot or by public transportation, and they all cost at least a few bucks to visit, I decided that I had better see one while I was in the area. The Château d'Azay-le-Rideau, although not one of the region's larger and more famous châteaux, is apparently one of the most elegant and most beautifully situated (on a small island in the Indre River). It is also only about 20 straightforward km from the hostel in Tours, which didn't hurt. I hitched to Azay-le-Rideau and spent the day exploring the château, inside and out, and having a look around the medieval town that surrounds it. Although interesting, the interior of the château is not particularly impressive (aside, perhaps, from some 16th century tapestries and the enormous fireplace in the kitchen); this is more than made up for by the beauty of the building's exterior and its surroundings, however. Furthermore, the relative obscurity of Azay-le-Rideau (and the fact that it was January) meant that I ran in to few people while I was there. All in all, it was a very pleasant and relaxing experience. By the time I left the castle, however, it was nearly dark, and I didn't like my chances of hitching a ride back to Tours. I ended up walking.

The following day I set out for Bordeaux. I briefly ended up in the back of a police car (again — as in Britain, it is not always easy to determine what is and is not a "major hightway," and hence where it is and is not illegal to hitch), but eventually secured a ride with a very kind older guy from Bordeaux who called his wife in order to get directions to the hostel, and then invited me to their apartment for dinner. I gratefully accepted, and enjoyed an excellent home cooked meal and a fine Bordeaux (which my host had been very anxious to introduce me to), and learned a great deal about the region and its history. While enjoying their hospitality, I reflected on the irony of a guy I had met in Tours telling me that, according to popular opinion elsewhere in France, "A Bordeaux les gens ne sont pas trés sympa" ("In Bordeaux people aren't very nice"); in fact, this was not the last time that I was to benefit from the generosity of people from Bordeaux.

I spent 4 nights in Bordeaux. At the Musée d'Aquitaine I had a chance to learn a little of the region's fascinating story, from prehistory (the Lascaux caves, about 100km east of Bordeaux, boast perhaps the world's most impressive prehistoric cave paintings) through Roman and medieval times to the French Revolution (the moderate Girondins were from Bordeaux) and beyond. With broad avenues and some fairly stunning 18th century architecture, Bordeaux is a very elegant and ornate city; the many parks and gardens add to its somewhat aristocratic ambiance. The very impressive cathedral hosted the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the future Louis VII in 1137. I didn't attend mass at the cathedral, but rather at a smaller church near the hostel, where (perhaps because I was the youngest person in atendance by about 40 years) I was asked to do a reading; fortunately the old folks seemed to understand me alright, though I was a little doubtful beforehand.

Of course, Bordeaux is most famous not for its history, its beauty, or even its prehistoric sites, but as the world's most renowned wine region. The Musée d'Aquitaine provides an excellent introduction to the history and practice of wine-making in the region, but I decided to visit first-hand one of the many nearby wine producing areas. On my final day in Bordeaux I hitched 40km out toward Saint-Emilion, and then walked the final few km through vineyards and into the idyllic little medieval town. Apparently the place is packed in the summer, but it was virtually abandoned in January (which was fine with me). The weather was perfect, and despite it being the low season I was able to visit the local wine museum, wander around a wine cellar, and sample some of the local fare (which was much better than the 2$/bottle stuff I'd been drinking in link this Paris). Perched on the side of a hill (the cathedral is literally carved out of the hill), full of cobblestone streets and medieval buildings, and surrounded on every side by vineyards, Saint-Emilion is a very attractive little town, though I could easily see how it might become a zoo in the summer.

I hitched back to Bordeaux, and the next day headed east in hopes of making it to Tarbes that night. I wasn't really sure where I was going at this point, but I was getting increasingly stressed about money, and I figured I should try to find work in a hostel somewhere for a while. I decided that if I was going to stay put for a while, I might as well do so somewhere nice, and so I was heading for the Pyrénées; there are a number of hostels in and around the mountains, and I hoped that I might be able to find something there.

It soon became apparent that I wouldn't be making it to Tarbes that night, so I decided to stop in Agen and continue my journey the following day. I arrived in Agen around dusk, and walked for an hour to the hostel, where I found a sign indicating that it was closed as of about two weeks previously. I considered climbing the fence into the hostel and holing up on the porch (thinking that if I was caught I'd at least be able to claim some justification), but it was cold, and I figured I'd be better off standing and walking than trying to sleep, so I set off to try to hitch to Tarbes. I was more than a little sceptical about my chances of finding a ride, since it was after 10pm. I'd only been standing at the side of the road for only about an hour, however, when a car pulled over. The driver, a young guy, wasn't going as far as Tarbes, but he was going to Auch, about half-way. I figured spending the night at the side of the road in Auch wouldn't be any worse than doing so in Agen, and I'd be closer to Tarbes, so I accepted the ride. He was extremely friendly, and I half expected (and I was sort of hoping) that he'd invite me to sleep on his couch. He did not, however, and I ended up spending the night in a schoolyard in Auch. A cliff runs through the middle of the town, and at the foot of the cliff, sheltered from the wind, the temperature was almost bearable (though the occasional rain was a bit of a hassle).

I made it to Tarbes in the early afternoon of the following day; the town seemed like a pretty miserable little place, and I was tired from my night in the schoolyard, so I spent most of the day sleeping at the hostel. The next morning I left the hostel fairly early in order to spend the day at Lourdes. As I was walking toward the south side of Tarbes in order to hitch to Lourdes, I realized that I was looking at snow peaked mountains in the distance; I hadn't noticed them the previous day due to the grey weather.

It didn't take me long to hitch to Lourdes, where I spent a few hours checking out the major sites in the huge complex that surrounds the grotto where Bernadette Soubirous (later Sister Bernadette Soubirous) saw 18 visions of the Virgin Mary in 1879. Aside from the story, the only really impressive part of the complex is the grotto itself, where hundreds of crutches hang, left by the healed; the nearby Basilica of the Rosary is reasonably nice on the inside, but spectacularly ugly on the outside. It was raining fairly steadily when I was there, so I didn't spend much time wandering around; the trip onward to Pau was also fairly damp.

I arrived in Pau in the car of an elderly gentleman who was very proud of the town and who gave me a thorough introduction on the way in. After a couple of hours of walking around I was a little confused as to what exactly the old guy was so proud of, but it isn't nearly as ugly as Tarbes, so I guess that's something. As is the case in Tarbes, the hostel is not actually a dedicated hostel, but is rather a sort of dormitory for young people who travel there to work for a few months at a time, with the leftover beds used for hostellers (judging from the confusion caused by my arrival, they don't get many hostellers). As a result, it was most unlikely that I was going to get any work there.

Although I had been within sight of the Pyrénées for a few days at this point, I hadn't actually been in to the mountains yet. The following day, still hoping to find work, I headed south to Etsaut, a small town in the heart of the mountains and not far from the Spanish border. The day was beautiful, warm and sunny, and I was pretty happy to be in the mountains. I arrived in Etsaut in mid-afternoon, and found that the hostel was really little more than a mountain refuge; this was fine as far as sleeping was concerned, but once again I was up the creek on the work front (my attempts to find something were invariably met with either blank stares or amused rejections). Aside from the increasing stress I was feeling re: money, my time in Etsaut was very pleasant. I took advantage of the rest of the day to walk up the road a few km to a centuries old abandoned Fort du Portalet perched spectacularly on the side of a cliff. I was deep in the mountains at this point, and despite the warm sun, there was snow everywhere. I spent the night completely alone in a large wooden building just off the tiny town square. The people keeping an eye on the hostel through the winter left me some wood, and I had a fire in the big stone fireplace and ate some pea soup. Before going to bed I took a short walk up the road and away from the (albeit feeble) lights of the town; the combination of the clear, cold weather and the altitude made for a fairly stunning celestial display (i.e., the stars were really nice). Being the only person in the refuge, I was able to liberate a bunch of blankets from other beds, and passed a fairly comfortable night.

I had hoped that I would have found work by this point, so I hadn't really planned where to go next. I would have had to backtrack quite a bit in order to remain in France, and the road I was on (the road through the mountains) seemed to run almost directly to Zaragoza in Aragón in Northern Spain. When I woke up in Etsaut, therefore, I headed out to the road and hitched a ride toward Zaragoza.

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